We have been four days on the Annapurna Circuit already. We have walked through the humid valley of the Marsyangdi Nadi River, past banana trees and the flush of tropical flowers. Then, upward. Climbing into the Manang valley, tromping like pilgrims towards the largest mountains in the world.
This is the home of the Himalaya, of the Buddha, the awakened one. I, myself, have vowed to be awake here, to think of nothing but the brilliant skies and the old stone walls, the tinkling of the bell hung around the neck of a brown packhorse. I have tried to be awake to the flap of the prayer flags, to the warmth of the sun on my skin, to the silence of all but the natural things. I have tried to be awake to my aliveness. But thoughts and worries have been tumbling through my mind in a landslide, one slipped thought setting off the others. At night I wake in the pitch-black of a tea house, my mind reeling from terrible dreams aided by anxiety and the oxygen-thin air.
I am worrying about going back to my childhood home for the summer, about the bonds that always pull me back, that indeed have never let me go. And I am worrying about the work I hope to do there, the plans I have for making my life as a traveler and writer sustainable. Right now it all seems so precariously perched on the edge.
So I walk and worry, thinking that planning and the repetitiveness of my thoughts will make the answers clear.
But through the jumble of worry comes a blessing: somewhere along the path these past few days, alone with the steady fall of my footsteps and the sureness of my own breath, I have come to understand that I cannot think through the future. The universe has something in store for me but it is not yet time for me to know what it is.
Today we walk from the village of Chame into Upper Pisang. Everything about the day seems blessed. The sky is unabashedly blue. Brown-eyed babies smile at me, tied like sacks of flour to their mother’s backs. The sun is warm and rising and the air has the sweet smell of spring.
From a distance the village of Upper Pisang looks medieval and uninhabited but up close it is a bustle of stone alleyways and tea houses. A wall of prayer wheels sits in the center of town. I drop my backpack and stare up at the snowy peak of Annapurna 2 mountain. A weathered old woman walks clockwise around the wall, singing and spinning the wheels, sending her prayers out into the universe.
We settle into a tea house, spread our sleeping bags across our simple beds, and then climb the dusty old steps above town to a 500-year old gompa to watch the sun set. We sit on a bench, a plank of wood over two tree stumps, and look out over the village. The churning river, far below, looks like a subtle stream. A woman, her cheeks a ruddy pink against her dark Tibetan skin, sweeps the stones around the gompa. Otherwise we are alone, save the mighty mountains in the waning sun and a long-haired dog who is curled up at our feet.
Earlier, as we’d walked into town, two young children, a boy and a girl, had followed behind us yelling, “Namaste! Namaste! Sweet?” We’d grown used to the village children asking for candy and school pens, and I barely glanced behind us saying, “No, no sweets.” Still, they followed. “Hello? Hello? Namaste. Sweet?” until I looked back and saw that they were not asking but offering us sweets. In their chubby hands they held two wrapped pieces of toffee extended to us as an offering. We accepted with gratitude. Now, I pull the candy from my pocket and chew, feeling humbled.
The sun has turned the mountain peaks an ethereal orange and pink and for a moment I think of nothing. Not the long miles to Manang tomorrow, not the future and what we might do with it. Not whatever has happened or whatever will. Perhaps this is what the Buddha spoke of when he spoke of dukkha, the origin of suffering, which is found in our desire to be solid and ongoing, to be a being with a past and a future. Right now I think of nothing and feel free. There is no yesterday or tomorrow, just the huge white shining light of now: this watercolor sky, these mighty mountains, the uncompromising dirt.
The sun has disappeared. Reluctantly we make our way back down the steps towards our tea house where night has fully arrived. Candles flicker in the common room where other trekkers sit sipping tea, talking in low voices.
Brian goes to join them. I linger in the doorway, my face turned towards the sun’s soft afterglow. It’s interesting, this time of night. From inside it appears completely dark but when you step outside you find that the earth is bathed in the most amazing light.